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'Never forget': A soldier remembers

A self-described “shy little boy” from Modoc County’s remote Surprise Valley is defining himself in new ways.

“I do have a voice, and I’m trying to use it for veterans, and so that people will never forget the eight real heroes,” says Clint Romesha.

Describing himself as “punk kid” from the small community of Lake City, about 40 miles south of Lakeview, Romesha has found his voice as a veterans advocate since receiving the Medal of Honor on Feb. 11, 2013. The White House ceremony recognized his role in helping to thwart an attack by a superior force of Taliban insurgents at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 2, 2009.

The 14-hour battle that resulted in the deaths of eight U.S. Army soldiers and injuries to 22 soldiers, including Romesha, was previously told in Jake Tapper’s book, “The Outpost.” Romesha’s telling and reflections of the battle form the basis of his recently released book, “Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor,” from Dutton Publishing. Advance reviews by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army retired, “The Perfect Storm” and “War” author Sebastian Junger and others have praised the book for its unflinching honesty.

In a telephone interview, Romesha said he was approached about writing a book shortly after receiving the Medal of Honor.

“Initially I was not really interested,” he said, noting he agreed only after being encouraged by fellow soldiers and family members of the eight soldiers. “The most tragic thing is having those guys being forgotten.”

What sets “Red Platoon” apart is Romesha’s thoroughness in recounting the frantic scramble of events. He was serving as a section leader when insurgents attacked an Army base at Keating in the remote Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. About 50 U.S. Army soldiers were nearly overwhelmed by a force of more than 300 well-trained, well-armed Taliban insurgents, “guys who were doing their best to annihilate us and had demonstrated intelligence at every stage of their attack.”

The challenge was made worse by their location. Combat Outpost Keating was, as Romesha writes, "unacceptable by almost any yardstick ... at a spot that resembled the bowl of a toilet." The post was surrounded by steep mountains, allowing the Taliban to shoot directly into the compound. A single, steep road connected the post with the nearest base, a six-hour drive, and the helicopter landing area was across a river outside the compound.

After three years, the Army had decided to close the camp, and the removal of munitions and other supplies reduced Keating's defense abilities. Immediately after the last troops were evacuated, U.S. air strikes obliterated the compound.

Despite that, using well-ingrained training and discipline — along with necessary doses of luck — the Americans held off the attack. Romesha, a staff sergeant, played a critical role in defending the outpost and initiating a counter-attack. In person and in the book, he emphasizes his role was as a team leader, with an emphasis on “team.”

A U.S. Army release, however, also noted his individual heroism: "During the fight, the perimeter of COP Keating was breached by the enemy. Romesha, who was injured in the battle, led the fight to protect the bodies of fallen Soldiers, provide cover to those Soldiers seeking medical assistance, and reclaim the American outpost that would later be deemed 'tactically indefensible.' "

The Meal of Honor citation also noted his critical role in the fight: "Staff Sergeant Romesha’s heroic actions throughout the day-long battle were critical in suppressing an enemy that had far greater numbers. His extraordinary efforts gave Bravo Troop the opportunity to regroup, reorganize and prepare for the counterattack that allowed the Troop to account for its personnel and secure Combat Outpost Keating. ..."

But in agreeing to write “Red Platoon,” Romesha insisted, “It was going to be a story about us ... to make sure the people of the United States open their eyes to the great sacrifices people in the military perform.”

He wrote honestly of his fellow soldiers, good and bad, and their tight-knot bonds.

"The men of Red Platoon were no pack of choirboys. Nor were we the sort of iron-willed, steely-eyed superheroes." They were, he writes, "Men who were plagued by fears and doubts. Men who had bickered endlessly and indulged in all manner of pettiness. Men who had succumbed to — and in some cases, were still running from — a litany of weaknesses that included depression and addiction, apathy and aimlessness, dishonesty and rage ... what is also true is that we were soldiers who loved one another with a fierceness and a purity that has no analog in the civilian world."

To research and write the book, a nearly two-year process, he took time away from his job as a safety officer for KS Industries, a construction firm in North Dakota where he has worked since leaving the Army in 2011. Romesha, 34, and his wife, Tammy, who were both born and raised in Surprise Valley, and their three children — Dessi, 14, Gwen, 7, and Colin, 5 — live in Minot.

“It ended up being a full-time job,” he said of researching and writing the book, co-written with Kevin Fedarko. His research included meeting with other survivors to get their perspectives. He remains on an extended leave of absence to promote the book.

“Red Platoon,” he emphasizes, is intended to honor the eight who died, along with members of his unit and the many others, including pilots, whose combined efforts narrowly prevented the attackers from overtaking the outpost. Romesha spent days studying eyewitness testimony, radio transcripts and conducting interviews. Romesha said he purposely wrote a “pretty matter-of-fact, to-the-point narrative in the voices of those guys.”

Writing the book presented him with a new challenge, one he accepted because, “I’ve always had the mindset if we’re not challenging ourselves every day, we’re not improving.”

Unlike many who’ve gone through combat, Romesha said he hasn’t experienced post-tramautic stress, depression or other adverse impacts — “I’ve been fortunate.”

He has, however, faced other impacts. In the book, and more so during the telephone interview, he talked about the surprise and shock of receiving the Medal of Honor — and its burden.

“It would be an understatement to say that I found this news confusing. In fact, it made no sense whatsoever,” he writes. “... but me? No way. The idea seemed to violate my sense of what was most important — and what deserved to be commemorated — about that day ... They picked the wrong guy.”

Although he’s left the Army, he still remembers and values the lessons learned, close friendships, sense of discipline and “the value of loyalty, the idea of honor and trust.”

On practical terms, “It went from one day being an oil field worker to the next day having a voice to change things I hold dear and near,” he says of becoming an advocate for veterans.

The once shy boy from Surprise Valley may not be embracing his role, but he’s accepted it.

“The Medal isn’t given out when things go right,” Romesha reflected during the phone interview. “That weight gets heavy. It’s a heavy load that’s tumbled on you. That medal isn’t mine. I was just selected to wear it.”

Lee Juillerat is a freelance writer and retired regional editor for the Klamath Falls Herald & News. Reach him at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Members of Red Platoon, 61st Cavalry Regiment, including Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, far left, gathered after the battle of Combat Outpost Keating in 2009. photo courtesy of U.S. Army
Clint Romesha receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Feb. 11, 2013. photo courtesy of the U.S. Army